A memorial mission

Vietnam veteran Jim Zwit has made it his life's mission to locate the families of the 8 friends he lost 40 years ago

The woman walks toward the wall.

She presses a fingertip into the shiny, dark stone, traces it down the wall, left to right, left to right, name after carved name, a roster of the dead palpable against her skin.

Jim Zwit is about to leave when he catches sight of the woman. He has been on the Washington, D.C., mall with two old Army buddies for several hours on this sunny April day, the 40th anniversary of the 1971 firefight that killed eight of his fellow soldiers. He has cried a little, reminisced and prayed, talked to the kids who arrive by the busload to see the memorial and learn what the Vietnam War was really like. He's ready to go home.

The woman bends, her eyes scan lower.

Zwit, noting that she is middle-age and black, thinks: It can't be. Can it?

Zwit knows this stretch of wall as well as he knows his scars, the pink welts that run from below his navel to his right nipple, the sinkhole of puckered skin where he once had ribs.

This is Panel 4W. The names of the eight men who died the night he earned his scars begin close to the bottom, at Line 123.

Robert. Jerry. Charles. Terry. Ronald. Rex. Paul. William.

Over the past four decades, Zwit has dedicated himself to finding their families so he could tell their mothers or fathers, their brothers or sisters or cousins, how they fought, how they died, and that they weren't alone.

He has tracked down relatives of all the men. All except one. William. William Ward. No matter how he searched, every clue went cold.

The woman drops onto a knee. Zwit walks over, kneels down next to her, rests a hand on her shoulder. He feels the rustle of a dormant hope.

"Can I help you find something?" he says.

In April 1971, Jim Zwit, the second in a family of nine children from Chicago's South Side, trekked with his infantry company down into the A Shau Valley and up onto an enemy ridge to retrieve the body of a soldier killed two days before.

Like the other 77 men known as the Delta Raiders, he carried 80 pounds in his rucksack. His M60 machine gun weighed 28 pounds more. He had just turned 20 years old.

At dusk on the second day, the men trudged up a trail littered with trees toppled by American bombs, swatting machetes at the suffocating jungle. They could sense, but couldn't see, the underground tunnels and bunkers of the North Vietnamese soldiers who had lured them deeper into danger by moving the body they came to get.

Shortly before 7 p.m., in the dying light, the quiet jungle erupted.

Explosions, the pop of machine guns, shouts and screams, bullets, blood, shrapnel, the stench of sweat and burnt gunpowder.

Then silence.

From up the trail, in the kill zone, a voice floated back toward the men hunkered behind a felled tree.

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